Monday, October 13, 2008

Feature Strips : Part 1

So you've decided to build a canoe and you want to "personalize" it.


Anyone who decides to build a boat puts a lot of themselves into it. It's a pretty emotional and somewhat ego-driven process. You are building the boat. You will be paddling the boat. You want the boat to look good because of what it says about You and Your craftsmanship.

There are many ways to do this of course, but one of the more common ways is to add a feature strip to the canoe. Your canoe doesn't have to have a feature strip, but most people seem to want one. A feature strip is a section of your strips where you have chosen to have woods that create a pattern or design that makes it unique. It can be very simple - a single strip of wood that contrasts the rest of the hull. It can also be very complex with lots of detail, contours or artistic touches. You could easily spend more time making the feature strips than stripping the remainder of the hull.

It's really not that difficult to get spectacular results. There are some things you will need to consider before you start.


You will need to have a plan - and it will need to extend beyond your feature strip to your vision of the whole canoe - seats, stems, thwarts, decks, gunnels and perhaps even to the paddle. (You've built the canoe - you ARE going to make the paddle, aren't you?!?) The choice of woods and the design should tie the whole boat together. It shouldn't just be a whole bunch of different woods that don't go well together making the canoe look like a badly made patchwork quilt. The elements of the canoe should go together. The best canoes that my students have made are those where they have a plan and a vision of what their finished canoe will look like. Usually they've made sketches and notes so that they know what the design and materials will be and are then able to follow the plan they've created.


If you're not an experienced woodworker, you probably don't want to go overboard designing a feature strip with Fleur-de-Lis for the length of the boat in exotic woods. To some degree, you may be limited by not only your own skills (and patience!), but by the tools, material and time available to you. Sometimes a simple strip is very elegant. One canoe that I thought was particularly nice had a single narrow stripe down the side that contrasted the rest of the hull.

Another limit is width. You don't want the feature strip to be so wide that you can't twist it to make contact with the hull forms. If it's much more than about 1-1/2" wide. If it's going to be wider, you probably want to break it up. I had a student build a strip that was about 2-1/2" wide. It didn't want to lay down on the forms and even snapped at one location and had to be repaired.


Pick softwoods. There is good reason for this. When your hull has been stripped and you are starting to fair it, the block plane and spokeshave will remove material fairly evenly. However, when you go to sand the hull, the hardwood will wear away more slowly than the softwood leaving grooves that make the hull looked rippled. Not the mark of a well-made canoe.

Pay attention to the color of the wood, the grain of the wood and the figure of the wood. You can use all of these to give you a beautiful result.

I usually recommend that students pick at least two species of wood that contrasts with the main hull material and with each other. For example, look at the two different woods in the picture below:

Both of these woods are suitable for making feature strips. The piece on top is Basswood and has a uniform, almost creamy color with very little distinguishable grain. The brown piece that it's sitting on is Spanish Cedar and it has a nice grain and color to it - it reminds me very much of mahogany. Both of these woods will contrast very well with a hull made from Western Red Cedar.

Generally, I recommend that my students build their hull from Western Red Cedar, Northern White Cedar, Atlantic White Cedar or Redwood. Other choices, although more difficult to find, would be Sassafrass, Cypress, or any other lightweight, rot-resistant softwood which isn't resinous (like White Pine with pitch pockets...)

Good accent strip materials include those listed for the hull as well as Poplar (be wary of green heartwood - unless that's what you want) and Basswood for lighter colors, Spanish Cedar, Peruvian Black Walnut (It's a "soft" hardwood. Go figure that one out...) are good for darker colors. For the more unusual, Alaskan Yellow Cedar or Spruce can be very yellow in color, Western White Cedar for another light color, or even Douglas Fir for the texture (although a bit hard and heavy) are options.

It is possible to add your own colors, but be careful. In the picture below are two pieces of the same Basswood board. The upper one is as it was cut from the board. The bottom picture shows a piece that has been dyed with aniline dye - in this case a water based aniline dye. You can use water based or alcohol based aniline dye and there are supporters for both. The reason these are used is that they don't have petroleum based solvents like oil based stain that you would use on furniture. If you use the oil based stain, it will contaminate the surface and you will have difficulty getting the epoxy to penetrate and bond to the wood. This isn't good. Also, be careful with the use of solvents generally - some are "recycled" and may be contaminated with petroleum based solvents. I've heard of bad experiences, but haven't had any myself.

I warmed both the dye and the wood and soaked it for a few minutes. The piece on the bottom has a cut made through the strip at a 45 degree angle so that you can see how far the dye penetrated the wood. To give you an idea of scale, these strips are about an inch wide and an eighth of an inch thick.

When the strip gets faired and sanded, most of the dyed surface will be removed. The dye would need to penetrate the strip much more deeply than this to be effective. This would take a very large container for a full length strip and a very long time. To be honest, I wouldn't want to try to dye selected strips ON the hull before glassing. I think it could be a disaster.

We've got a plan and we've got our materials. Tomorrow, we'll explore one method of building up a feature strip.

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